The way it looked, his 127 acres in western Maryland was not so different from the farm where he was born, in Virginia. The silo was gray, the barn blue, the tractor orange, the milking parlor white. Everything was rain-washed and sun-scorched, faded from life outdoors. There were cows up to his chest, kittens at his ankles, hogs knee-high, lapping up milk and being fattened for auction.
Even inside the house, there were cows: cow figurines, cow paintings, cow pictures, cow pillows, cow trophies, cow ribbons. Some were serious-looking, photographed at milking competitions. Some were laid-back, sitting on a wooden shelf with their legs crossed. Some were silly, above the toilet proclaiming: "Welcome Family, Friends & All Udders."
Bobby heard it said so often that he said it himself: "We're cow people."
And: "We're big on the cows as opposed to just doing the work."
The farm in Virginia was where Bobby was given his first calf. His parents bought him a registered heifer from a line of national champions. Her name was "Buttercup," and she was the start of his college savings.
From then on, the money Bobby made selling hogs at the 4-H auctions was put in the bank or spent on a registered heifer. When "Buttercup" gave birth to "Beth," he understood that when the time came she would be sold to pay for textbooks and tuition. It was the same when "Beth" gave birth to "Bubbles," when "Bubbles" gave birth to another "Buttercup," and so on.
By the time he graduated from Boonsboro High School last spring, Bobby had a herd of 30 jerseys. They were not as big as the black-and-white Holsteins, but their milk was rich in fat and protein and valued for making butter and cheese.
Jerseys were the only breed Bobby had known. His father and three of Bobby's uncles had milked a herd of 250 on the farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, and that's where Bobby learned, on pastureland once owned by his Grandfather Stiles.
There were not many family farms like theirs left, and Bobby's mom predicted even fewer in the future. "What with less than 2 percent of the American population involved in agriculture production," he'd heard her say.
The four families grew in number until Bobby's parents decided to sell their share, move to Maryland, buy a cousin's farm and thus be certain that if Bobby or his sister Jess chose to stay, there would be a farm to give them.
The choice, though, was Bobby's.
He once thought about becoming an astronaut, a pilot, a spy. The spy video game was his favorite, and he played it when he wasn't so tired that he fell asleep watching TV. In the game, he was not a boy in a baggy T-shirt and oversized shorts whose face broke out, whose mom corrected his grammar - in the game, he was the guy who defused one national security crisis after another.
Bobby recently thought about becoming a lawyer. Then he thought about becoming a farm lawyer. Other times, his thoughts circled back over the farm like a hawk, without any career in between.
Like his father, his mother, his sister, Bobby felt affection for the cows and the work, though the attraction was hard to explain. As Bobby would say: "I don't know why that is. It's just one of the things that is."
On the farm, there was always work to be done. There was the morning milking, the evening milking. There were silo chutes to be climbed, hay bales to be mixed with grain, feed buckets to be filled, cows to be fed, stalls to be cleaned, problems - scours, pneumonia, mastitis, heat, calcium deficiencies - to be watched for and addressed.
One thing Bobby liked was the way the work allowed him to think. He was not the kind of person to talk out his problems, but when he was in the parlor with the wick, wick, wick of the machines, decisions were made.
Time away from the work was rare and appreciated. So Bobby fondly remembered South Carolina, California, Kentucky, Missouri, Wisconsin, Vermont; national conventions, milking competitions, Future Farmers of America field trips. And yet when he came back to Washington County and saw the sign on Interstate 70 for Boonsboro, when his Dodge Ram turned south onto Route 65, when he drove up their lane and saw the words "The Shenandoah Jerseys Farm," a part of Bobby was always glad to be home.
If there were cows he missed, they were "Buttercup" and "Slugger." "Buttercup" was his fitting-and-showing cow; "Slugger" had the second highest record on the farm for the 31,800 pounds of milk she gave in a single year.
Bobby's sister Jess, who was four years younger, had more favorites, but she was a softie.
That's why he climbed out of bed without hesitating when his mother came into his room at 4 a.m. a second day in a row, turned on the light, and told him about his sister's cow."`Goodness' is dead."
Bobby hadn't cried for a cow since he was little. He had sold hogs and steers at auction for years, so he understood a farmer's need to exchange life for death.